Mexico’s golden generation

Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu leads a brilliant group of Mexican filmmakers

Alejandro González Iñárritu accepts his Best Director Oscar.Photo: reuters_live | Video: Reuters / AP
Jan Martínez Ahrens

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Emmanuel Lubezki and Martín Hernández – three old friends from Mexico City who had their date with the stars on Sunday night.

Director Iñárritu and cinematographer Lubezki both took home Oscars for their work on the night’s big winner, Birdman, which also won Best Picture. Their colleague Hernández, meanwhile, lost out to American Sniper in the sound editing category.

But together the trio demonstrated the extraordinary vitality of Mexican cinema, which is now giving lessons to the world. Iñárritu’s victory is the confirmation of a dizzying career that has put him, along with his other friends Alfonso Cuarón – last year’s Best Director winner for Gravity – and Guillermo del Toro at the head of a historic generation.

The triumph of a Mexican who doesn’t deny being one was greeted with an  outpouring of pride back home

Nevertheless, Iñárritu refuses to talk of a Mexican boom – “this just adds a tum-tum-tum, like at the end of the song,” he jokes – instead preferring to downplay the phenomenon as a synchrony, in which he also includes the exquisite and enigmatic Carlos Reygadas.

But there’s no denying that the group – all of a similar age and profoundly critical of the establishment – forms a spearhead. “The tragedy of cinema is that it costs a lot of money,” Iñárritu tells EL PAÍS. “This art form has been screwed since the moment it was born, because it is industry and it is art. It is a form of deep human expression like music, but it has ceded ground to the big corporations, which now design products for entertainment; the human, individual expression, art subordinated to a personal vision is disappearing.”

Another thing the group has in common is that it displays its Mexican-ness in public. Although based in the United States, its members throw themselves into talking about the key issues whenever they visit the birth country. And when defending their work, they never renounce their roots. It was something Iñárritu made clear when he collected the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday night. Up on stage, in front of a global audience, the filmmaker didn’t just call for a “government that Mexico deserves” but also for respectful and dignified treatment for his compatriots, who are stigmatized in the United States because of their origin.

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Iñárritu’s words, but above all the triumph of a Mexican who doesn’t deny being one, were greeted with an outpouring of pride back home. Historically always overshadowed by its neighbor to the north – with which it shares a 3,185-kilometer border, a third of it marked by an ignominious wall – Mexico has spent the last months submerged in a crisis of confidence. The Iguala student massacre, with its lethal combination of corruption and impunity, has unleashed the demons that many Mexicans trusted had been exorcized. And both the anemic economy and the succession of scandals that has hit the government have only strengthened the sad wind blowing around Mexico’s heart.

The gang led by Iñárritu and Lubezki has shown a path to success in this dark terrain. The journey of the former, a self-made creator, is the constant search for a universal voice. A creative whirlwind, Iñárritu never gives up. He himself admits to being possessed by an inquisitiveness “that tears down everything,” and his constant perfectionism transforms his movie shoots into battlefield. The result is something that, regardless of whether or not you like it, is never ordinary, as Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006), Biutiful (2010), Birdman and upcoming proto western The Revenant all demonstrate.

In those last two works Iñárritu has been accompanied by the discreet Lubezki, his great friend, whom, last night up on stage, he called the real artist of the group. A visual genius who won the same Best Cinematography statuette last year for Gravity, Lubezki astounds with his technique. With his light touch, he can put the tension in a setup in a fraction of a second, reviving a scene. And he always knows where he’s treading. Wherever he shoots, he knows the names of all the local trees, down to the color of their leaves at sundown. His rapport with Iñárritu was visible on the Canadian set of The Revenant. The pair would separate themselves from the rest of the crew at critical moments: talking, understanding each other, before going back to filming, unaware that they were already legends. Last night, with Hernández, they celebrated that fact together.

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